In ministry, one can define stewardship as "maximizing the impact of every dollar." As the pastor of a small rural church, I have experienced this reality firsthand. Yet, even with financial difficulties, I cannot forget that the above definition still includes the word "impact." Our spending, regardless the amount, must make a difference.
One area often caught between stewardship and impact is technology. In my church, I have found that a little bit of technology goes a long way. Yet, the cost presents a formidable challenge to our budget. Unwilling to forgo the impact, I have tried to find creative ways to add technology without adding the typical high costs. Though not profound, the result of my efforts is five effective ideas for becoming high tech on a low budget.
1. Take Inventory
As I began taking inventory, I wanted to explore areas for technological improvement. With the need to be cost-conscious, I thoroughly reviewed our current stock. Taking inventory revealed several instances where we didn't use things we already owned. Two examples come to mind.
First, our children's ministry needed a system for notifying parents during the service. Years ago, we bought a set of pagers, but they gradually deteriorated. After considering comparable systems, I found that everything was priced well beyond our means. But after reviewing the features of our projection software,I discovered a text messaging toolbar. We could easily display a child's assigned number on the worship screen, giving us a no-cost solution.
Secondly, as most churches do, we often use performance tracks during the service. Cueing the track with a CD player worked, but sometimes errors occurred. Sunday morning tech volunteers occasionally struggled switching their focus from the projection software to the CD player. But during my exploration of the projection software, I learned it could import and use audio files. All we had to do was burn the performance tracks from the CD and move them into the software. Now, a single mouse click begins the track, meaning we no longer need to transition from the computer to the CD player and back to the computer. Once more, taking inventory led to a no-cost technological improvement.
2. Select Inexpensive Upgrades
Following my inventory, I began to consider various technology upgrades supported by our presentation software. Two inexpensive upgrades have significantly improved our Sunday morning presentation.
For instance, I saw that, with the right Bible software, we could import scripture directly into our slides without retyping or cutting and pasting. This creates advantages in other areas as well, particularly in sermon preparation and in the creation of our sermon outlines. To make this upgrade, we could choose among several expensive, big-name Bible programs. Or, for less than $40, we could buy online software, which offers numerous translations, providing a full-feature upgrade at a fraction of the cost.
Another inexpensive upgrade: the AoA DVD Ripper (www.aoamedia.com). For a small amount, it easily pulls movie clips directly off of DVDs. Of particular value, this ripper allows you to cut a movie scene at pre-defined starting and ending points—some rippers only allow you to cut whole chapters. This is a significant improvement when it comes to using movie clips in sermon illustrations.
In the past, a Sunday morning tech volunteer switched from the computer to a stand-alone DVD player to show a clip. To eliminate such a switch, I discovered our projection softwarecould play a clip directly by interacting with our computer's DVD player. But that still was impractical because of the work needed to call up the precise starting and ending points of the clip I wanted to play. The AoA DVD Ripper allows me to rip the exact scene I want from a DVD onto a disc; the disc gets inserted into our computer's DVD player, and then a volunteer uses the projection softwareto play it the moment I need it.
3. Use Open Source
Of course, free is an attractive price for any budget. In this regard, nothing beats open source software—software developed out of a public collaboration and available at no charge. Two stable, and highly valuable, pieces of open source software are G.I.M.P. and Audacity.
G.I.M.P. (www.gimp.org) is a wonderful graphic design tool for manipulating pictures—without question, this tool has made a remarkable impact on our visual appeal. For churches, it can design first-rate images for sermon series, brochures, and outreach material. Getting accustomed to G.I.M.P. takes some time, but complete help files are available online.
Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) is a free audio editor and recorder. When I started at my church, we recorded sermons on tape. It worked, but the process was antiquated and increasingly impractical. I wanted to begin digitally taping the messages. After a quick search on the Internet, I learned how to connect our desktop to our soundboard, but we still needed software to record the audio. The solution was Audacity, an incredibly easy tool to use. Our Sunday morning tech volunteers only need to know how to press record and stop. With only the download of a quick plug-in, Audacity also permits exporting of the audio in MP3 format, ideal for uploading files onto our website.
4. Buy Previous Editions
Perhaps one of the simplest ways to save money on technology software involves buying previous editions. Older software often only lacks a few of the features of its latest counterparts—but typically costs less. Many times, the new features add little to the practical value of the product. While this approach offers numerous opportunities, the greatest value for us has been in obtaining quality photographs for backgrounds. Broderbund's Print Shop contains hundreds of professional level, high-resolution images. Broderbund currently markets Print Shop version 23, however version 21 can be obtained on Amazon for less than $10. Though rather clunky and unstable, the value of the software lies in its images. In fact, we don't use Print Shop's publishing features. Instead, we find an image from Print Shop's gallery and then copy and paste it into G.I.M.P. for editing. Within a few minutes, we have inexpensive, great-looking sermon promotions for the Internet, PowerPoint presentations, and lobby posters.
5. Watch for Rebates
In the competitive world of technology, manufacturers constantly try to stir up business or reduce inventory by offering rebates. Rarely do I visit an office store that does not have some brand of memory, peripherals, or software deeply discounted by rebates. As for the software, these rebates do not typically hit the big-name tools, but at a lower price, the lesser names still quite adequately function. Recently I purchaseda movie-making software for $10 after a $40 mail-in rebate. No one will mistake it for the premiere programs on the market,but it is user-friendly and affordable.
Rebates can save significant money, yet who wants to spend the time searching for those deals? Well, instead of collecting Sunday circulars or spending hours surfing websites, bookmark DealsOfAmerica.com. DealsOfAmerica.com searches all the big name technology retailers and lists their deals for you. A short time ago I added a new DVD burner to our production computer for only $25 and picked up a pair of wireless outdoor speakers for less than $80. Beginning with DealsOfAmerica.com saves time and money.
Find the balance
Being a good steward of our church finances can be difficult. Yet technology should not be ignored, despite its costs. Stewardship requires spending money carefully but also effectively, and we live in a technological age. When used properly, technology makes an impact. For many churches, a balance can be struck by looking for low-cost ways to add technology. These five inexpensive ideas may not bring a technological revolution, but they can significantly improve the appearance and functionality of your church's worship environment.
High-tech does not have to mean high price.
Ryan Hobbs is the senior pastor of Sulphur Springs Christian Church, a small rural church in eastern Indiana.